Pari Dhillon: Equality, diversity and inclusion is good governance

16 Feb 2021 Voices

Last year a new a new principle on Equality, Diversity and Inclusion was added to the Charity Governance Code, Pari Dhillon explains how to apply it

Over the last six months, we have worked with the Charity Governance Code steering group to create a revised Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) Principle for the Code.  As part of the research process, we held interviews and focus groups with people across the sector who have experience in governance, EDI expertise and bring lived experience. I’d like to share with you the seven key learnings from those sessions to support your good practice for equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) in governance.

1. The first key learning is that…It’s a journey.

We found that most people in our sector are really eager to get going on creating more equitable organisations and outcomes. BUT there are inherent risks in rushing to “fix a problem” – the key risks being tokenistic / virtue signalling actions or ill thought through actions that further damage people. The urge to move straight to recruiting diverse trustees without first building inclusive cultures and practices, will result in a revolving door of talented people who leave as soon as they realise their presence is not meaningfully valued.

2. So, instead of rushing to action, we found that the better place to start, is with number 2 on our list, which is to ask ourselves, why? Why is EDI important for our charity?

It’s key at this stage to make time and space to talk as a whole board about what equality, diversity and inclusion means for your charity and for your board.

Assess why it is important within your context. It was clear from the feedback that context is hugely important:

  • For example for a medical research charity, EDI might be important because the inequalities in society are reflected in the board room and are then reflected in decisions on health inequalities. This board might therefore focus energy on imbalances in power and perspective by involving those who experience health inequality in their decision making and data/research. 
  • But for a small Lincolnshire village hall, EDI might be important because their service provision is not reaching people on lower incomes in the village – and so they might create space on the board for people on lower incomes to shape an organisation that is more reflective of and relevant to that community.

3. Then after asking yourself why…It’s important to ask yourselves why don’t we have that now? 

  • Who is or is not on our board and why not?
  • Why have we not considered data on minoritised communities in our decision making in the past?

Assessing your current understanding, practice and culture around EDI will allow your board to be clear on its starting point. Some practical ways of doing this might include:

  • Adding diversity audits to your annual skills audit questionnaires
  • Carrying out role reviews to ensure that your requirements are not limiting who is able to be a trustee
  • Holding exit interviews to understand why diverse trustees may not have felt included
  • Carrying out 360 reviews on those who makes decisions and whether those decisions can be challenged by a range of perspectives 
  • For charities that provide services, checking whether your board reflects the people you seek to serve
  • And for all charities, it’s important to start discussing critically and honestly whether your meetings are spaces in which everyone has power to participate and shape decisions.

4. After you’ve done this assessment you will have created a greater shared understanding across your board that will allow you to set yourself some goals that are relevant to your context and start from your current reality.

At this point, it’s actually unhelpful to plan to have all of this cracked in one step.

It is much better to focus on what’s important to your charity (as I set out in point 2) and then define what your timebound and realistic goals need to be to achieve what’s important.

  • For some that will mean working hard to create inclusive cultures and behaviours – which might include deciding what it does not look like and what to do when you see exclusive behaviours
  • For many it will mean the whole board committing to some learning in order to create that inclusive culture
  • And for some it might mean that once inclusive culture is agreed, there is a need to make space for new members. Making space means not just opening up one position on the board for a “diverse” trustee to join and be given responsibility for EDI in totality – because that risks tokenism. Instead making space on your board should mean creating space for more than one new trustee, ideally three to join at around the same time, so that a tipping point is created for culture change. Making space also means creating time on agendas for the whole board to engage in discussion and decisions relating to EDI, and creating space in all board role descriptions for EDI responsibility
  • For some it will mean working with the executive of the charity to define new direction or strategies that will create equality of outcomes in line with the charity’s purpose
  • *NOTE on recruiting more diverse trustees – the message has been strong and clear that boards must avoid recruiting through their own networks and to make use of the advice, databases and reach of organisations such as Action for Trustee Racial Diversity or the Young Trustees Movement. ACEVO’s Home Truths report addressing racism and outlining ways of delivering real diversity in the charity sector also includes some practical steps on how charities can go about recruitment.

5. Once goals are defined, the stage is set for taking action, reviewing it and learning from it on a loop – it’s important at this stage to be willing to make mistakes and to learn from them.

I regularly talk about the fact that EDI is not like changing the fuse in a plug, you don’t learn how to do it and then just repeat.  It is an iterative process of: 

  • External or internal review
  • Continuous learning, 
  • Taking action, 
  • And being willing to learn from successes and failures along the way. 

It is emergent and constantly evolving, just as society evolves. For me, that is a liberating way of looking at this work because it allows us to keep on trying and learning, even if or especially when, mistakes are made along the way.  

6. Once you’ve started to take some actions towards your own context specific goals, it is also important to begin to publish your performance towards those goals.

Ideally together we will create a sector in which people are sharing their progress, their performance and what they have learned from their challenges. This transparency can feel nerve-wracking but when done well it gives us public accountability and allows others to learn alongside us.

And just in the way that goals should be contextualised, one of the key recommendations is that performance reporting will be most powerful if it is contextualised. So, for example:

  • Reporting on the racial or gender balances of a board might be an excellent measure of diversity but it may mask the actual power imbalances that persist in board rooms where the power positions or decision making power are the domain of a privileged few. So reporting on diversity must be coupled with reporting on inclusion and ultimately on the equality of outcomes achieved. 360 reviews can enable deeper cultural learning to support quantitative data
  • But for all boards, there is the immediate opportunity to report on its performance against the goals that it sets itself within its context and in relation to its current reality – this will mean more meaningful change for many charity boards who are at different stages of their journey.

7. Which brings me back to the point that this is a journey and it is an ongoing journey

And so, as your context changes…

  • As society changes…
  • And as you continue to learn…
  • As resources increase or decrease…

… EDI becomes ever more important to ensure that boards are relevant to the shifting challenges that our sector is facing, and that our resources are reaching those who need them the most. 

It is an ongoing journey to keep building and maintaining a board that is diverse and inclusive and delivers equality through the charity’s purpose and mission. And I hope that reading this article is a step forward on that journey. 

Pari Dhillon, director at Social Justice Collective.

Pari Dhillon is hosting our upcoming training course, An introduction to anti-racism in charities. This course is a perfect introduction for senior leaders and trustees to learn and plan how to work towards race equity in their organisation’s culture, practice and services.


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